The flu has hit the U.S., and hit it hard. We’ve already seen flu-related deaths. And now we confront a serious new threat, the coronavirus.
There’s no guarantee that this year’s flu vaccine is as effective as we would like, and right now we have no vaccine or other medical means to avoid the coronavirus. So we need to employ other ways to contain the spread of the flu and other dangerous infections.
One simple way to foil all of these infections is to wash our hands often, and to do it right. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have cautioned that to avoid the flu, we should “stay away from sick people,” adding it’s “also important to wash hands often with soap and water.”
On February 9 of this year, The New York Times repeated this message, noting that “[h]ealth professionals say washing hands with soap and water is the most effective line of defense against colds, flu and other illnesses.” In the fight against the coronavirus, the CDC has once again reminded us of the importance of hand-washing, stating that it “can reduce the risk of respiratory infections by 16 percent.”
BUT one aspect of hand-washing is frequently overlooked: Once we’ve washed our hands, how do we dry them?
The goal of hand-washing is to stop the spread of bacteria and viruses. But when we wash our hands in public places, we don’t always encounter the best way to dry them.
Restaurants, stores, theaters, museums, and other institutions offering restrooms for their patrons generally confront us with only one way to dry our hands: paper towels OR air blowers. A few establishments offer both, giving us a choice, but most do not.
I’m a strong proponent of paper towels, and my position has garnered support from an epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic, Rodney Lee Thompson.
According to a story in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago, the Mayo Clinic published a comprehensive study of every known hand-washing study done since 1970. The conclusion? Drying one’s skin is essential to staving off bacteria, and paper towels are better at that than air blowers.
Why? Paper towels are more efficient, they don’t splatter germs, they won’t dry out your skin, and most people prefer them (and therefore are more likely to wash their hands in the first place).
Thompson’s own study was included in the overall study, and he concurred with its conclusions. He observed people washing their hands at places like sports stadiums. “The trouble with blowers,” he said, is that “they take so long.” Most people dry their hands for a short time, then “wipe them on their dirty jeans, or open the door with their still-wet hands.”
Besides being time-consuming, most blowers are extremely noisy. Their decibel level can be deafening. Like Thompson, I think these noisy and inefficient blowers “turn people off.”
But there’s “no downside to the paper towel,” either psychologically or environmentally. Thompson stated that electric blowers use more energy than producing a paper towel, so they don’t appear to benefit the environment either.
The air-blower industry argues that blowers reduce bacterial transmission, but studies show that the opposite is true. These studies found that blowers tend to spread bacteria from 3 to 6 feet. To keep bacteria from spreading, Thompson urged using a paper towel to dry your hands, opening the restroom door with it, then throwing it into the trash.
An episode of the TV series “Mythbusters” provided additional evidence to support Thompson’s conclusions. The results of tests conducted on this program, aired in 2013, demonstrated that paper towels are more effective at removing bacteria from one’s hands and that air blowers spread more bacteria around the blower area.
In San Francisco, where I live, many restrooms have posted signs stating that they’re composting paper towels to reduce waste. So, because San Francisco has an ambitious composting scheme, we’re not adding paper towels to our landfills or recycling bins. Other cities may already be doing the same, and still others will undoubtedly follow.
Because I strongly advocate replacing air blowers with paper towels in public restrooms, I think our political leaders should pay attention to this issue. If they conclude, as overwhelming evidence suggests, that paper towels are better both for our health and for the environment, they can enact local ordinances requiring that public restrooms use paper towels instead of air blowers. State legislation would lead to an even better outcome.
A transition period would allow the temporary use of blowers until paper towels could be installed.
If you agree with this position, we can ourselves take action by asking those who manage the restrooms we frequent to adopt the use of paper towels, if they haven’t done so already.
Paper towels or air blowers? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.